By Gabe Ribeiro
I first wrote this sentence with a blue pen I stole from a hotel in Skopje, North Macedonia. I smuggled it 4,800 miles home only for it to write the same daily meanderings: to-do lists, journal entries, copied-down quotes and passages that my clear-barreled black ink BIC pen from Walgreens used to do. I’ve lugged this blue pen around in the invisible glass case that is the spiral binding of my notebook. I thought its mileage count would make it do something different. The aura I wrapped it in still doesn’t make it write on its own. Perhaps there is no magic in pens, only working relationships. Somewhere, somehow, I enlisted myself in believing that this instance was grounds for wonder. It is a dampening reality to learn that sometimes things are a lot less sacred than expected, that there is a lot less magic than I bargained for, that these moments are grains of sand swallowed and spit out to build fleeting sandcastles.
I was convinced that somewhere I would find an outward charm, but all the charm belongs to me. No one cares about my blue pen. It’s this self-imposed allure that disappears if I talk myself out of it. I can retell myself the story, but this time without the minutiae I am so drawn to, but that would mean I would be denying my own personality its legroom. These pieces of time, these grains of sand make up my sandcastle of individuality. Never impermeable, a gust of wind can take away my west wing, time will erode the structure entirely unless I tend to it. But the practice is not tedious sand-keeping; it’s learning time—how to process it, where to put it, when to come back to it, how to fit it all together. My body tells me memory is muscle.
For the longest time I’ve had a scathing fear of forgetting—plans or ideas or facts or strings of incomplete sentences or quotes to keep in my holster. I was here and there. I saw this and that, and I have the photo to remember it. I thought of this and wrote it down. I liked the idea of this and wrote it down. This passed through me and I wanted to make sure it didn’t get away. This neurosis has held my hand towards both a notebook and photography habit. All this dried ink and exposed film is proof of my awareness, a registration of my existence, records of my search, a chamber of remembrance fit for pacing, for revisiting and lounging. It’s a place where you comfortably put your feet up on the furniture and can easily overstay your welcome. Remembering is perhaps at the root of what I’m always trying to reach: a return to power, a reintroduction to childlike fascination, to who we are, were, want to be.
In Newark, I have had the thankless and embarrassing task of growing up. I have changed, much like this city. I can tell you more or less what I’ve learned. Innocence is forgiven. Hope is necessary. Curiosity is encouraging. Tenderness is suggested. Timidity is frustrating. Blooming is contagious. Indifference gets checked. Irreverence sours quickly. Fear is a tide. Shame is heavy. Forgetting is a lot harder than remembering. Things stay generally where you left them, if not, perhaps they weren’t yours in the first place. Wonder takes time. If you see something beautiful once, it’s a miracle. If you see it a second time, it’s just a coincidence. A third and you’ve finally started paying attention.
There are as many versions of Newark as there are people who’ve passed through it, each of them with a laundry list of transgressions the city has committed against them. Newark fails as an object of affection, I’m afraid. It is more of a force to be reckoned with. It will spit at your feet and then tuck you in at night. The city is only understood to the capacity one has to digest it. It is not meant to fold in your pocket or be protected from criticism. You can only take ownership of the things you understand. And ownership of a city begins when you understand that you don’t own it. Things do not stay where you left them. You do not fold Newark. You fold into Newark.
One learns a city by walking it, and you learn to love a city by walking it often. I walk with the rock in my shoe that my eyes are not big enough, that I cannot walk fast and slow at the same time. There is an outdoor sidewalk service I attend, where, with frequency, you can familiarize yourself with the prayers, the customs, the believers. When I feel far from the last holy version of myself, I go back looking for communion—for retribution from the concrete, and my naivety is held up to the light when I ask for grace from the hardened.
I have taken up photography in an effort to remember in high resolution. A point-and-shoot habit, the sport of capturing the essence without disturbing it, involves me carrying a pocket-sized camera at all times. The photographer can be considered voyeuristic: inserting themselves onto the scene, making people clinically aware of their own physicality, maybe even crashing the party. But I’m not crashing the party. This is my party. I am in constant attendance of my own funeral, reminded of the state I was in when I preoccupied myself with certain scenes or events or locations. Every photograph is biographical. This city is a roadmap of my remembering. A cemetery of all of me.
Scattered along these streets are my quiet surrenders — dedication points to versions of myself, slaughtered darlings. I’m not looking to forget these parts, but to keep in touch with the persons I used to be. I have made a quilt of this city—me and my flags. These makeshift tombstones visited with regularity, studied and turned over to see if they ought to be fully and respectfully laid to rest, or resurrected in parts. Here lies the version of me that wanted to swallow the world and would not take chewing for an answer. Here lies the version of me that lived a life up until the point of getting punched in the face by a stranger. Here lies the version of me who only went outside to see what was left of the worms. And so on. In lieu of flowers, you can send good paper and pens, those metaphorical scalpels that dissect and examine the latest versions and queues others to be laid to rest—like the one who bites his tongue and lets his mouth fill up with blood.
I am constantly rewriting myself into metaphors that become my own hurdles, sewing myself into a personal history that can only make sense in retrospect—that only makes sense to me. That’s where the magic lies.
Gabe Ribeiro is a native Newarker and artist behind the NORK! Project.